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The Word

Hello, banh mi! How food words join the dictionary

From pepita to saison, 2014’s most delicious new entries into American English

Saison (top) and banh mi. Sally P. Vargas for The Globe

In 2014, the American Heritage Dictionaries added 500 new words and meanings to its authoritative record of American English, including “clickbait,” “cosplay,” and “social anxiety disorder.” The words come from all kinds of domains, from pop culture to obscure scientific specialties. But as always, a particularly rich source of new language is the food world, which delivers a wide bounty of lexical delicacies every year.

So, welcome to the dictionary, “banh mi,” “halloumi,” “mochi,” and “saison”! A Vietnamese sandwich served on baguette, a brined Cypriot cheese, a Japanese treat made from rice paste, and a fruity Belgian ale may have little in common as foods, but they sure give a good picture of the established food trends of 2014. In fact, the adoption of ethnic food words into English is an excellent proxy for the moment our culture embraces these foreign foodstuffs as our own. And their immigration story is, like any other, one of assimilation, with both the terms and the dishes often ending up far from where they began.


A word enters American dictionaries not when it’s first used in English, but when it’s used widely enough that it can be said to belong—“a completely naturalized citizen of American English,” said Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Merriam-Webster. The challenge for lexicographers is to determine that tipping point. The AHD keeps a more than 100-page list of words on the verge, tracking their spread in newspapers, books, blogs, and (for food words) cookbooks and menus. “If it’s a Chinese food dish and it’s only appearing at Chinese restaurants, it’s probably not going to get added yet,” said Emily Neeves, AHD assistant editor in charge of food words. “But if it’s appearing in a cookbook for everyday recipes you can make at home, that’s something that’s moved into the widespread usage.”

Food language, like the food itself, often travels a circuitous path. English retains several corruptions from Chinese languages, for instance, that preceded any desire for authentic cuisine. In a recent book, “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,” Stanford linguist Dan Jurafsky discusses the complex history of “ketchup,” which derives from the Hokkien word for “fish sauce” and arrived in Britain in the 18th century; the tomato variation came along 100 years later. “Chop suey” is first cited by the OED in 1888, around the time bohemian adventurers began to haunt New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, according to Andrew Coe’s “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.” The OED quotes this recipe: “a mixture of chickens’ livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs’ tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices,” and gives the original Cantonese as “shap suì,” meaning “mixed bits.” By the time the word entered Merriam-Webster in 1916, it was featured in home cookbooks—minus the offal. A revolt against inauthentic chop-suey-style Chinese-American food later on in the century led to the introduction of words like “dim sum,” which entered Merriam-Webster in 1985.


While Chinese food words reached the English-speaking mainstream largely through immigration, French food words arrived there from high culture. “French-ness” had long meant “fancy” in the United States, Jurafsky said, and so “restaurant menus, to indicate ‘fancy,’ would use French, even in an Italian restaurant”—calling a main course an “entrée,” for example, a word that came in roundabout fashion from the French term for appetizer. The language of French cooking, however, doesn’t seem to have made it into dictionaries until the second half of the 20th century. That was after Julia Child’s cookbooks and TV show taught a broad public not only how to prepare dishes like coq au vin and beef bourguignonne, but how to pronounce their names, in her distinctive Brahmin accent. Merriam-Webster added many French food words during this period, including “croissant” in 1963 and “bourguignonne” and “crudités” in 1983, according to Sokolowski.

The long dominance of French food ended in the 1970s and 1980s, Jurafsky said, when Americans embraced a newly wide range of foods, from “pasta”—a word that didn’t enter Merriam-Webster until 1963 and barely shows up in search results before 1975—to “sushi” to “burrito,” added by Merriam-Webster in 1983. “Cultural omnivorousness” had come into vogue; these days, Jurafsky said, “what it is to be cultured is to know a lot of stuff, from a lot of cultures.”

New food words reflect that wider global interest. “Twenty years ago, a lot of the new food terms were from Latin America,” said Steven Kleinedler, executive editor of the AHD—while the past 10 years have brought terms from India and Southeast Asia, as Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks became widely available and Thai restaurants sprouted on every corner. Kleinedler also ascribed this globalizing effect to cooking shows, which he said popularize exotic ingredients. “I remember seven or eight years ago on ‘Top Chef,’ they were on a ras al hanout kick, where every other dish had ras al hanout,” he said. (That’s a North African spice mix that entered the AHD in 2011.)

The food words entering dictionaries this year represented a wild international smorgasbord. Besides the AHD’s additions, the Oxford Dictionaries Online added “arancini,” (risotto balls); “cavatelli,” “cappellacci,” and “trofie” (pasta shapes); “queso” (short for chile con queso); “guanciale” (an Italian cured pork); and “izakaya” (a Japanese small-plates bar). Merriam-Webster added “aji” (chili pepper), “brat” (as in -wurst), “croque monsieur” (French grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich), “crudo” (a dish of raw seafood), “pepita” (pumpkin or squash seed, often dried or toasted), “pho” (Vietnamese meat and noodle soup), “poutine” (a French-Canadian dish of fries, gravy, and cheese curds), and “yuzu” (a Japanese citrus fruit).


Kleinedler says the list of words they’re tracking for later editions includes “churrasco” (a Portuguese and Spanish word for grilled meat), “dopiaza” (curry rich with onions), “dunkel beer” (dark German beer), “gözleme” (traditional Turkish pastry), and “moqueca” (Brazilian fish stew). These words still lurk in their ethnic niches for now. But like “chop suey,” “coq au vin,” and “pasta” before them, they’re on their way to becoming part of American cuisine, and American English.

Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.


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